Posted by: aediculaantinoi | September 3, 2013

Folk Religion and “Indigenization”: A Question/Problem…?!?

I’d like to put this idea out there and see what sorts of thoughts and responses all of you readers might have on the matter. I’m not attached to any particular viewpoint on this, I’m just wondering what useful dialogue it might generate on a few matters of importance to pagans and polytheists in the modern world.

There’s an idea out there, encapsulated most in a 2003 book by Robert Ellwood, Cycles of Faith: The Development of the World’s Religions, but which has been around at least since the late 1990s (and specifically 1999), when I was in the last year of my M.A. in Religious Studies program, which is where I first heard of it. (I cannot now recall if Ellwood was cited as the originator of the theory in my courses which mentioned this, but I have the notes in storage and could eventually check on it…) A summary of the theory goes as follows:

Cycles of Faith looks at broad patterns in the development of five of the world’s historic mass religion — Hinduism, Chinese religion, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam — and finds that they have gone through comparable stages, here named Apostolic, Wisdom/Imperial, Devotional, Reformation, and Folk Religion. Each has had a primal period of consolidation as a new world religion, a time of alignment with a major empire giving it a political base, the exfoliation of medieval-type devotion, a Reformation involving putative simplification and return to the sources, and a final stage when it survives more or less as folk religion in a changed world. Though there are great variations, each stage may very roughly last five centuries or so. Thus Christianity would be now entering its Folk Religion stage, while Islam, five hundred years younger, is amidst the turmoil of an era like that of the Protestant Reformation in Europe. Some commentators have felt this analogy helps one to understand what has happened with the two faiths in the twentieth century and after.

Other large and long-standing world religions like Shinto and Judaism are left out of this schema, because they have not been as widespread or as “evangelizing” as these others, and they (perhaps more honestly and pertinently) do not really follow this pattern at all. Both Judaism and Shinto are religions that, from many perspectives, are “indigenous” religions in origin, and still are, even though Judaism is practiced in a diasporic fashion for many of its adherents. But, we’ll return to some of those issues in time…

One thing I’ve found that is a bit “too neat” about this schema is that it seems rather largely based on the “model” of Christianity, and even takes some of its stage- or cycle-names from that specific context (e.g. “apostolic,” “reformation”). This model is best suited for looking at Christianity, and it does most accurately fit the description of the 500-ish year length of each cycle. But, what about religions like Hinduism, which had other religions emerge from its “reformation” period (i.e. Jainism and Buddhism)? And what of Buddhism itself, which ended up having its Mahayana movement emerge in a reformation-esque milieu and yet that was only about five- to six-hundred years into its existence? So, there is that set of reservations on these matters for starters…

But, the reason I wanted to introduce this model was to comment on it in a few particular ways.

When this model was presented to us in my Religious Studies program, the discussion of a religion at its “folk” stage was viewed very definitely as a kind of “collapse” situation. People do the given religion without much thought or reflection, they celebrate major holy days, but they don’t really know much about the history of the religion, nor do they care to know about it, and many don’t even know the significance of most of the things they do. Looking at Christianity today, that does seem to be the case with many people, and leads to all sorts of things which many of us find laughably appalling, like the notion that is said in all seriousness by some modern Christians, to wit, “If English is good enough for Jesus Christ, it’s good enough for me.” Many Protestants think that the religious practices they have, and the activities they do in church on a Sunday morning, are “what the apostles did” and “what Jesus did,” even though their particular denomination may not date back more than a hundred years at most in many cases. There is an assumption that “things have always been done this way” by the people who are involved in this variety of ultimately folk Christianity, and there is little interest in actual Christian history, theology, or intellectual engagement with the religion, and there is even less interest or acknowledgement of the stages of Christianity which have come before, and even less still of the many religions which predate or antedate Christianity. It’s “turtles all the way down,” and they’re Christian turtles, at that.

As mentioned, the people teaching me this model of religious historical development viewed the “folk” stage as a kind of failure of religion, and I suspect that’s due to the application of this model to other religions that have already reached the “folk” stage (e.g. Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism), a disdain for them, and then a consequent SHOCK that one’s own religion is either on the verge of or into that stage itself, and what it therefore implies about having “lost the message” of the earlier stages of the religion, the intentions of the founders, and so forth. That, I think, is interesting, and also rather appalling…

The other assumption with the “folk” stage is that the religion is essentially endemic and assumed amongst the entire population, and it cannot be escaped to a certain extent in a given culture that espouses it. This is very most certainly true of Western–meaning U.S. and Canadian, European, and Australian–cultures, and it is becoming the case in many other cultures as well (though often not without a good and solid infusion of indigenous traditions into the mix as well). As a result, there is an even greater pressure to conform to the religion in question, because to not do so is to be a “traitor to one’s culture,” to some degree or another. The pushback that “apostates,” converts to other religions, atheists, and other such religious dissenters and nonconformists get from their Christian families, societies, and governments is nothing new to anyone who is a modern pagan in any of these cultures, and while it is better in some places than in others (even varying greatly from state to state or town to town in the U.S.), nonetheless it is something that all of us have had to deal with in some way or another in our lives, even if we were raised completely pagan.

But, as I was explaining the above model of religions to my Intro to World Religions students a few weeks ago, one of them made a very intriguing observation. She said, “So, really, when a religion is in its ‘folk’ stage, it is pretty much like an indigenous religion.” I stopped when she said this, and then said, “Yes, you’re right.” And suddenly, I sort of saw what some of the problems of the above assumptions reveal about this entire schema.

Those who look at the “folk religion” phase as a negative thing do so because it means that the religion has “descended” into a stage very much like indigenous religions, where (they assume in pejorative ways) no one has to “think” about their religion. The assumption has tended to be, in monotheistic religions like Christianity, that they are “more evolved” in this outdated evolutionary view of religious development (which goes from animism to polytheism to philosophy to monotheism, and then stops, rather than taking the evolutionary view fully on board and observing that deism and then atheism are often the next stops on the religio-evolutionary train!), and thus should be “better” than the indigenous religions that are generally animistic and/or polytheistic. That an “evolved,” Western, “civilized” person could have anything in their life that they do unthinkingly or without deep reflection and intellectual engagement, I think, frightens those who look at the “folk” religion stage as a failure or collapse of the religious project.

But, then another question poses itself which may not be very comfortable for a lot of modern pagans and polytheists to ask: namely, how “old” does a religion have to be in order to be “indigenous”? If one takes on board the “invasion” theories of Celtic culture in the Insular Celtic world, then Celtic elements in Irish culture had not been there for more than a thousand years at very most when Christianity first made major footholds in the country, and thus an earlier culture and religion which was more or less indigenous to the country had to be either displaced, replaced, or absorbed and assimilated in the process of the Celticization of the country. Of course, I don’t hold with “invasion theories” when it comes to Celtic matters in Ireland, personally, but nonetheless, this point stands for a variety of the ancient Mediterranean and Near Eastern polytheistic religions. There was a time when the people who were eventually known as “the English,” namely the Anglo-Saxons, were not Christian, thus we can argue for an earlier indigenous religion amongst them; but, what about the Dutch, let’s say? The language and sense of identity of the people of the Netherlands had many precursors and contributions from Germanic, Celtic, and other potential influences, but the territory and nation as currently understood has only existed for about five hundred years, during which Christianity was a part of things from centuries before the get-go. Does that mean, therefore, that Christianity (even though it was about to enter its “reformation” stage in the above model when the Netherlands were first constituted as they are now) is an indigenous religion when it comes to the Netherlands? It’s an interesting set of considerations to entertain, certainly…

I will state categorically and with no qualms whatsoever that it is my personal opinion that religion is a choice that is up to the individual in any and every case–at least in places that are not run by a theocratic government–and that whatever religious choice a person makes is entirely up to them and their own responsibility and freedom. I think freedom of (and from) religion is a right that is inalienable from humans, and I think it is in accordance with my own polytheistic religion to assume as much on the part of my gods and our own relationships to them as well.

That having been said: does the problem of the way in which “folk religion” looks a lot like “indigenous religion” explain some of the problems that we as modern pagans have with the Christian majority? Even though they may not realize that they are “more indigenous-like” than not in some respects these days, nonetheless this may be the operating mindset in a large number of Christians that we have to deal with in the modern world…

So, I’m interested in your thoughts on any and all of the above: the model/schema/theory itself; whether “folk religion” is really a “good” or a “bad” thing, and to whom it might be either or both; and whether or not “indigenous” is something which can be applied to Christianity at any point, or at least “indigenous-like” in certain respects.

Have at it, dear friends…


  1. I’m commenting more because I want to see what kind of conversation develops. I think one of the problems is that we have documentation of some of those religions developed. Anything which does not have those pedigree papers seems easier to dismiss due to a lack of “proof” it seems. It was just there. We can theorize how it developed but there is no formal record.

    I may have more later.

    • That’s very true…

      I was going to mention above something that the priest at the Shinto Shrine here has often said, which I disagree with on some semantic and taxonomical points, but nonetheless: he says that “religions have founders; spiritualities don’t.” So, Judaism has a few ostensible founders (none of whom were probably historical), Christianity does (which is also debatable historistically), Buddhism and Jainism and Taoism and Confucianism and Islam all certainly have founders who were historical (though all became mythologized in various ways). But, who really founded Hinduism? Who really founded Shinto? Who really founded Celtic or Greek or Roman or Egyptian religion? No one we can point to with any certainty…and, even though there might be various thoughts within each of those religious systems on who did it (e.g. Numa for many of the things in Roman religion), it’s almost not important to have a specific and individual founder in those systems. Just like “ancestors”: even though one might know some of the more recent individual ancestors that one personally has, after a few generations they just sort of fade into a non-individualized group. I like how Elisheva put that in relation to her Hebrew ancestors: the image she uses to represent them has few/no personal characteristics to reflect this kind of “group” identity, which is a far more important consideration in many indigenous religions.

      Anyway…I hope other people comment further on this too–and that you may comment further as well!

  2. I wrote a doctoral dissertation on this….

    • Which, alas, I still have yet to read…along with a billion other things. 😉

  3. […] few years ago, I spoke about Robert Ellwood’s stages of historical development in religions, and had a few caveats about the overall schema in the context of what I discussed on that […]

  4. I think it’s more reflective of the elite bias of academia- they typically are studying and viewing the religion of the educated elite as more legit, thus folk religion (often viewed as “debased” by the elite) is looked down on.

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